Day of Atonement
By Janet Lisonbee

Editor’s Note:  This article is written to help us reflect on the implications behind the Jewish celebration of  Yom Kippur, which will be on Oct. 14th this year.

Of all the religious days in the Hebrew calendar, the Day of Atonement, known as Yom Kippur, is the most solemn and sacred.  Yom Kippur was called “The Great Day,” and Jews in all lands fasted on that day and spent it entirely in the synagogue, earnestly praying. 

While praying in their synagogues, Jews everywhere turned their eyes and their hearts to one spot, to the Temple, where the High Priest conducted the sacred and mystic ceremonies of the day.  For that was the only day of the year on which the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies. [Schauss Hayyim, The Jewish Festivals, p. 121]

The ancient sacrifices, as well as ceremonies, are “a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father” {Moses 5:7] and much can be learned about the atonement of Jesus Christ by studying the sacrificial rites and ceremony of the Day of Atonement.  This paper is designed to draw parallels between the actions of the high priest on that solemn day and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the great High Priest.

Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote, “The symbolism and meaning of the ordinances and ceremonies performed on the Day of Atonement are set forth by Paul in his Epistle to the Hebrews.  He calls the tabernacle-temple ‘a worldly sanctuary,’ wherein sacrificial ordinances were performed each year by Levitical priests to atone for the sins of men and prepare them to enter the Holy of Holies.  These ordinances were to remain ‘until the time of reformation,’ when Christ should come as a high priest of ‘a greater and more perfect tabernacle,’ to prepare himself and all men, by the shedding of his own blood, to obtain ‘eternal redemption’ in the heavenly tabernacle.  The old covenant was but ‘a shadow of good things to come . For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins .But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God’ [Heb. 9 & 10].  How perfectly the Mosaic ordinances testify of Him by whom salvation comes and in whose holy name all men are commanded to worship the Eternal father forevermore!” [McConkie, The Promised Messiah, pp. 435-37]

Atonement means to make “at one” or reconciliation.  Through Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice, mankind can be reconciled to God and be restored to their former state with Him [Hugh Nibley, “The Meaning of the Atonement”, Approaching Zion, pp. 554-614].  Because of the Fall, mankind became spiritually and physically cut off from the presence of God, subject to the effects of the natural man, death and the influence of Satan.  Through the atonement of Jesus Christ, we can overcome these effects of the Fall and be brought back into God’s presence.  “O how great the goodness of God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster, yea, that monster, death and hell, which I call the death of the body and also the death of the spirit.”[2

Nephi 9:10]


At the beginning of the Yom Kippur service, the high priest bathes and puts on garments of white linen (not his usual, ornate high priestly vestures) and again washes his hands and feet.  This ritual makes the high priest “clean” before the Lord, representing Jesus Christ, the sinless one [Heb. 4:15].

The high priest then enters the temple court and lays his hands upon a young bull that is destined for the sacrifice that stands ready between the porch and the altar and recites the first confessional. The bull, the most expensive of the sacrificial animals, can also by symbolic of Jesus Christ who bore the sins of all mankind.  In Apocryphal writings, the Messiah is known as a bull. “And I saw that a white bull was born, with large horns, and all the beasts of the field and bird of the air feared him and made petition to him continually.  And I saw till all their kinds were transformed, and they all became white cattle.” [R. H. Charles, The Psuedepigrapha of the Old Testament, 1977] “All interpreters agree that the white bull represents the David Messiah”. [Religious Studies Monograph Series, Isaiah and the Prophets, Vol. 10, p. 14, LDS Collectors Library ’97]

The high priest then moves to the east of the altar to where two goats stand ready.  Both are of equal size, the same appearance, and cost an equal sum of money.  He then casts lots upon the two goats.  One was to be for the Lord as a sin offering and the other for Azazel, the completely separate one, the evil spirit regarded as swelling in the desert, to be sent away live into the wilderness.  The reason for casting lots instead of choosing the goat, was to steer clear of suggesting that the Priest or the people were offering an animal to Azazel. [Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, p. 1020] The sacrificial goat can be symbolically representative of the sins of mankind and the Azazel goat, of Satan and those whom he has overcome.

Returning to the area where the bull is tethered, once again he places his hands on the animal and repeats the confessional, except this time it is in behalf of the sons of Aaron instead of “for I and my household.”  After this second confessional, the high priest slaughters the bull, gathering the blood in a basin, which he hands to a waiting priest.  It is the duty of this priest to keep stirring the blood, so that it does not coagulate.

The high priest walks up the ramp leading to the altar and fills a golden fire-pan with burning coals, sprinkles incense on the coals to create smoke, and prepares to enter the Holy of Holies.  It is important to note that no one besides the high priest was allowed to be present in the tabernacle while the acts of atonement were being performed. 

In Isaiah 63:3 we read, “I have trodden the winepress alone“[emphasis added].  The high priest takes the smoking fire-pan into the Holy of Holies.  The purpose of the smoke cloud is to shield him from the presence of God. 

Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, who is the Jewish authority on ancient Israel sacrifice and ceremony wrote, “The fact that the smoke screen is to cover the kapporet (mercy seat) . is to shield the divine presence that rests on the kapporet, between the cherubim.” [Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16, p. 1031]   Stephen Robinson in his book, Believing Christ, explains, “In Gethsemane the best among us vicariously became the worst among us and suffered the very depths of hell.  And as one who was guilty, the Savior experienced for the first time in his life the loss of the Spirit of God and of communion with his Father.  There was for him no support, no help – neither from his friends who slept through his agony, nor from the spirit of God, which departed from him.  No one has ever been as alone as Christ in the Garden. [p. 119]

The high priest also takes into the Holy of Holies the blood of the bull, as his own sin offering and sprinkles the blood upon the mercy seat and then seven times before the seat as an atonement for the Holy of Holies.  The blood of the bull represents Christ’s offering for sin.  “Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit .” [Doc. & Cov. 18:18]

Then the high priest retreats from the Holy of Holies and kills the sacrificial goat, the congregation’s sin offering, and takes its blood in to the Holy of Holies and sprinkles its blood in the same manner.  The blood of the goat is symbolic of the sins of Israel – their disobedience and rebelliousness.  Jesus used goats as a metaphor for sin. [Matt. 25:33, 41] Alma understood the symbolism of blood being equated with sin when he said, “.how will any of you feel, if ye shall stand before the bar of God, having your garments stained with blood and all manner of filthiness.will they not testify that ye are guilty of all manner of wickedness?” [Alma 5:22-23]

“The term kipper (as in Yom Kippur) literally means purge, that is to expunge impurity, then the function of all the blood manipulations becomes clear: to purge the sanctuary of its accumulated pollution.” [Milgrom, p. 1033].  It is the blood of Jesus Christ that purges or cleanses our blood. Alma wrote “I say unto you.there can no man be saved except his garments are washed white; yea, his garments must be purified until they are cleansed from all stain, (stained from the blood of our sins) through the blood of him of whom it has been spoken by our fathers, who should come to redeem his people from their sins” [Alma 5:21, insert added]. 

Jacob Milgrom wrote that the meaning of transgression in Hebrew is rebellion.  “Its usage originates in the political sphere, where it denotes the rebellion of a vassal against his overlord.  By extension, it is transferred to the divine realm, where it denotes Israel’s rebellion against its God . it is sin that generates the impurity that not only attacks the sanctuary, but penetrates into the adytum (Holy of Holies) and pollutes the kapporet (the mercy seat), the very seat of the Godhead.” [p. 1034]

“Why the urgency to purge the sanctuary?  The answer lies in this postulate:  The God of Israel will not abide in a polluted sanctuary.” [Milgrom, p. 256]  Individually, we are sanctuaries where the Spirit of God dwells, like the Holy of Holies.  Paul stated, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” {l Corinthians 3:14]  As man transgresses the laws of God, the spirit of the Lord withdraws and our inner sanctuary becomes polluted. 

“Therefore, the Lord has no place in him, for he dwelleth not in unholy temples”. [Mosiah 36:37]. 

Jesus Christ took our sins (the blood of the goat) and wrought the perfect atonement with His blood (the blood of the bull) in order to reconcile us to God so that we can have His spirit to be with us and pave the way that we might be able to re-enter into His presence.

Next, the high priest enters the Holy Place and sprinkles the blood of the bullock and then the blood of the goat on the altar of incense, as an atonement for the Holy Place.

Lastly, he would mix the remaining blood of the bull and the goat together and apply it to the horns of the altar of sacrifice, located in the outer courtyard, as an atonement for the altar.  Drawing parallels from the rites of the Day of Atonement, it seems that in Gethsemane, Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of mankind in three distinct segments.  We know that he said the same prayer, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” [Matt. 26:39-44] three times, and it seems that the process was getting more difficult because Jesus asked that the cup be removed each time. It is also recorded that he took pause and checked on the apostles three times to see if they were sleeping, also indicating that the Atonement was probably wrought in three segments.  One can’t imagine that Christ was so concerned that the apostles stay awake that he would leave the great infinite process of the atonement to make sure they did not fall asleep.

The three levels of the Tabernacle/Temple – the Holy of Holies, the Holy Place and the Outer Courtyard parallel the three degrees of heaven, namely the Celestial, Terrestrial and Telestial Kingdoms.  The High Priest first atoned for the Holy of Holies, then the Holy Place and lastly, the altar located in the Outer Courtyard.  It is possible that Jesus Christ atoned for the mankind’s sins in that order and that is why the atonement got progressively more difficult. [1]

The symbolism of the mixed blood of the goat and the bull for the altar of sacrifice, located in the outer courtyard, could represent the suffering that Christ went through for those of the Telestial Kingdom and the pains they must also suffer.  We know that those who will inherit the Telestial Kingdom do not inherit that kingdom of glory until after they have suffered for their sins.  Jesus said, “For behold, I, God have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; but if they would not repent they must suffer even as I” [Doc. & Cov. 19:16-17, emphasis added].

Gethsemane means “oil press.”  Gat (geth) in Hebrew means “press” and shemen means “oil.”   The weight of all mankind’s sins pressed heavily upon Jesus Christ insomuch that he bled from every pore, like an olive that was being pressed. Olives, when pressed produces a composite, bitter juice, usually dark red in color.

It is interesting to note that there are three general pressings of olive oil, which correlate with the three pressings of Christ in Gethsemane.  The first pressing is called Extra Virgin and Virgin Olive Oil and has the highest quality of flavor.  Second pressings produce a lower quality of oil and are often blended with refined oils such as soybean oil to make it palatable.  Olive oil that comes from final pressings is inedible and requires tremendous forces, in which the fruit finally becomes a dry pulp, in order to get every bit of marketable moisture out of the olives.  These last pressings produce extremely bitter, concentrated acidic liquid. This oil, called olive residue, is used in cosmetics, detergents, soap, and textiles. [The Repertoire – A Culinary Workstation, “On the Olive & its Oils”, 1998 p. 1-7, World Book Encyclopedia, Olives, 1990 Edition]

During the intervals of Gethsemane, Christ came to the disciples and found them asleep and said, “What, could ye not watch with me one hour?  Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation:  the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” [Matt. 26: 40-41] Surely, He was not so concerned about them watching with Him for support but more out of His concern for them, in reference to the fact that He was not going to be with them anymore.  He was admonishing them to keep “awake” because He was soon to be leaving them, and as He told His disciples as recorded in Mark 13:32-37, “Take ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know not when the time is. 

For the Son of man is as a man taking a far journey, who left his house, and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch.  Watch ye therefore:  for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at eve, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning:  Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.  And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch.” [emphasis added]

After performing the sprinklings of blood, the high priest takes off his bloodstained linen garments, bathes, and puts on his official garments.  These bloody linen garments are left in the Holy of Holies.  “The garments are endowed with greater sanctity because the high priest entered the adytum (Holy of Holies).  Thus they must remain in a place of comparable sanctity, inside the ‘most sacred’ tent and not in the courtyard.” [Milgrom, p. 1048].  Perhaps these garments are representative of the garments Christ wore in the garden.  If the symbolism is literal, it would appear that Christ’s garments did not leave the garden with him.  This possibility is supported by the fact that there is no mention of Christ’s bloodstained garments in the scriptures during the arrest and trial.  Certainly these garments are sacred, stained with his blood that was pressed from every pore to satisfy the demands of justice for each of our sins.  It is hard to believe that these garments were left to the discretion of the Roman soldiers.

Milgrom states that this is the only time that bathing after offering sacrifices is mentioned. [p. 1048] It is certainly possible that Christ could have removed his bloodstained garments and washed with water and changed into the official high priest garment that the Romans soldiers cast lots over. [John 19:23]  We know that an angel was with him [Luke 22:43] and water could have been provided for him, or he could have taken some with him or perhaps there was water already in Gethsemane.

There is latter-day revelation that also supports the possibility that the bloodstained garments were preserved by God, instead of being left in Roman hands.  In Doctrine and Covenants 133:46, 49-51 regarding the second coming of Christ, we read, “And it shall be said:  Who is this that cometh down from God in heaven with dyed garments . And the Lord shall be red in his apparel, and his garments like him that treadeth in the wine vat . And his voice shall be heard:  I have trodden the wine-press alone, and have brought judgment upon all people, and none were with me . and their blood have I sprinkled upon my garments, and stained all my raiment … ”  (emphasis added).  Perhaps the garment that he wears at His Second Coming will be the original garment stained with His atoning blood. I can’t imagine that it would be one that simply looked like the original.  From these scriptures, the garment is not a solid red color, but one that is sprinkled with blood red.  If Christ does wear those sacred garments, what a visual mankind will witness – the effects of His suffering for our sins, as well as the nail prints in His hands and feet [2] .

After removing the blood-spattered linen garments from the blood manipulations in the tabernacle, the high priest puts on the official high priest regalia to finish the rites of Yom Kippur.  This change could be symbolic of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It could also represent Jesus Christ putting off His first coming to earth in the role of a suffering servant [Isaiah 53], to that of His second coming, as the Lord of Lords, King of Kings [Rev. 19:16].

After performing the rites of atonement and dressed in the high priestly vestures, the goat for Azazel is brought before the high priest, who then places both his hands upon its head and confesses all the sins of the people of Israel.  Milgrom explains that because both hands are placed upon the goat (instead of the usual one-handed sacrificial rite), it indicates that this animal is not intended for sacrifice. “The two-handed ceremonial instead serves as a transference function:  to convey, by confession, the sins of Israel onto the head of the goat.” [p. 1041]

The Azazel goat is then sent into the wilderness, signifying the sending away of the sins of the people now expiated to the Evil One to convince him that they could no more be brought up in judgment against the people of God [Bible Dictionary, LDS Edition, p. 671]. Milgrom states that “The rite with the Azazel goat, by contrast, focuses not on the effects of Israel’s wrongs, but exclusively on the wrongs themselves. [p. 1033] 

Regarding the sending of the goat into the wilderness, Milgrom wrote, “Exorcism of impurity is not enough, its power must be removed.  An attested method is to banish it to its place of origin .Thus the scapegoat was sent off to the wilderness, which was considered inhabited by the satyr-demon Azazel” [p. 1044-5].  “The word wilderness here is rendered as an inaccessible region, literally a cutoff land, in other words, from which the goat cannot return.  It has been observed that in Akkadian, the terms for wilderness also connote the netherworld and that demons who are denizens of the underworld are prone to take residence in the wilderness.  Thus it is possible that the satyr-demon Azazel is being driven to its natural home in the wilderness/netherworld” [p. 1045-1046]. 

This rite could be symbolic of the final battle where Satan and those whom he has overcome will be cast out.  In Doc. & Cov. 88:144 we read, “And then cometh the battle of the great God; and the devil and his armies shall be cast away into their own place, that they shall not have power over the saints any more at all.”  It is interesting to note that this goat was not sacrificed, but sent away alive into the wilderness.  In Revelations19:20 and 20:10, we read that the servants of Satan and Satan himself are cast alive into the lake of fire and brimstone.

The final high priestly ritual on the Day of Atonement involved the offering of two rams as burnt offering for himself and his people. The rams were male and without blemish.  Burnt offerings were symbolic of offering of one’s complete dedication to the Lord, as the animal was entirely consumed and was considered as a “sweet savor unto the Lord” [Lev. 1:9] and were done voluntarily [Milgrom, p. 204].  The two rams for the burnt offerings at the completion of the Day of Atonement rites could represent Christ and His work, both of which were entirely dedicated to the Lord.  Jesus said, “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me and to finish his work” [John 4:34].  In Doc. & Cov. 76:106-107, we read, “.when Christ shall have subdued all enemies under his feet, and shall have perfected his work; . he shall deliver up the kingdom, and present it unto the Father, spotless, saying:  I have overcome and have trodden the wine-press alone.”            The Jews designate one day a year as the Day of Atonement.  We, as Latter-day Saints have the opportunity each week to remember the atonement of Jesus Christ through renewing our covenants as we partake of the emblems of His sacrifice during the sacrament and remember what great things the Lord has done for each one of us.

Truly the Old Testament rites and sacrifices were a type and shadow of Jesus Christ.  Alma explained that “there should be a great and last sacrifice and then shall there be . a stop to the shedding of blood; then shall the law of Moses be fulfilled; yea, it shall be all fulfilled, every jot and tittle . and this is the whole meaning of the law, every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; and that great and last sacrifice will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal” [Alma 34:13-14].

[1] It is significant that the great vision given to the Prophet Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon as recorded in Doc. & Cov. 76, parallels these rites of the Day of Atonement – first a vision of the Celestial, then Terrestrial and finally the Telestial kingdoms.  It is also interesting that in the hymn “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief”, the 2nd and 3rd verses, symbolic of the sacrament, the stranger, symbolic of Christ, thrice drains the offered cup. [LDS Hymnbook. P. 29]

[2] Perhaps the reason the moon “turns to blood” [Rev. 6:12] at His coming is because so great is His glory that the sun is darkened [D & C 29:14, 133:49]  The moon would then reflect Christ, who is wearing blood red.

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